When former Minnesota Rep. Joe Mullery looked around the State Capitol in 1997, he realized there were no statues of Black people, women, farmers or labor leaders.
Their absence was not reflective of the people of Minnesota, Mullery recalled, and he knew that his friend, civil rights leader Nellie Stone Johnson, would be a great candidate to be the first. An advocate of so many important issues throughout her life — labor, education, farming and politics — she represented everyone, he said.
After more than 20 years of fundraising, community leaders unveiled the statue of the "woman of the century" Monday at the Capitol.
It is the first statue placed inside the Capitol in more than 60 years and the first statue or bust of a woman or person of color, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan told the crowd. Designed by Minnesota sculptor Tim Cleary, it is also the first statue authorized by government action of a Black woman in any of the nation's state capitol buildings, Flanagan said.
Political leaders, family, educators and labor leaders packed the Capitol rotunda Monday. Many of them knew Johnson well before she died in 2002. Eleven students from the Minneapolis public school named in her honor listened as speakers addressed the importance of education and hard work.
Many people are able to point out issues in our society, but Johnson was a doer, former state Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III said. His father, Hubert H. Humphrey, was a close friend of Johnson, who influenced his battle for civil rights.
"She helped drag this state and this nation forward," Humphrey said.
An advocate for education, Johnson was the first Black person elected to citywide office in Minneapolis when she won a seat on the library board in 1945.
Born on a farm in 1905, Johnson worked at the Minneapolis Athletic Club as an elevator operator during the Great Depression and risked getting fired as she recruited for the union. She became the first woman vice president of the Minnesota Culinary Council and the first woman vice president of Local 665 Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union. She also helped form the Democratic Farm Labor party.
Flanagan said Johnson was a close friend of her grandmother. Johnson owned a sewing and alterations shop, and the lieutenant governor's mother, who died Friday, would take them to Johnson's after school for help mending clothing.
"She knew Nellie as an organizer, but also as my grandmother's dear friend who taught her so much," Flanagan said.
Johnson died at age 96, after more than 70 years of working for the betterment of others. Now, students from across the state can read about her life when they visit her statue inside the Capitol's North Portico, Mullery said.
"I would say she's the personification of what a good citizen can accomplish," Mullery said. "Almost all Minnesotans, no matter what their goal is, can relate to her and strive to help others."